Denver’s thriving arts scene was headed for its best year yet. And then the pandemic hit.

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When crowds of people return without fear to public events, they’ll be hungry for musicals and symphonies, street festivals and First Fridays. But ready and willing as they are, Denver’s best-known cultural nonprofits have grown increasingly nervous about their uncertain future.

For the past three months, social distancing and thousands of canceled events have ravaged one of the city’s most vulnerable sectors. Cultural nonprofits rely on fundraising, tax dollars and people buying tickets to support live dance, theater, music and visual art. Since March, all are at risk.

The metro-area’s arts scene had found a fragile stability in recent years, living in the sweet spot between population growth and skyrocketing rents. Some artists have been pushed out as their remade neighborhoods caught the eye of developers, while others saw investment and expansion, new audiences and critical acclaim.

These hard-won gains threaten to evaporate as costs mount, revenues continue to slide and artists lose their primary income. As of early May, a survey of America’s $800 billion arts and culture sector found nearly 62 percent of artists responding had become fully unemployed because of the pandemic, The New York Times reported.

In the metro area, thousands of people work for arts nonprofits that have only a few weeks of cash operating reserves left, according to the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District.

“The arts are one of primary magnets that attract people to the core of the city,” said Chris Coleman, executive director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Theatre Company. “They get people to eat in restaurants, stay in hotels, and shop in shops. But like sports teams or the Botanic Gardens, they’re also part of what make Denver what it is. They enrich our hearts and souls and provide a social network in a way that’s profoundly different than being online. … We’re cut off from all of those parts of our lives right now.”

Denver’s arts and culture scene has become increasingly vital to its residents. More people attend art events in Denver than any other city in the U.S., according to a recent National Endowment for the Arts study, and in a 2016 NEA study, the state ranked No. 1 in the percentage of residents who personally perform or create artworks. As a result, the state’s tourism marketing has over the last decade embraced Denver’s mixture of weird public art (hello, Blucifer and Big Blue Bear), world-class museum exhibitions, and touring Broadway shows as much as the Denver Broncos and Colorado’s 300 days of sunshine.

In 2017, arts and culture brought nearly $16 million into the state’s economy, according to a federal study. Arts and cultural production also support more than 100,000 jobs in the state each year.

The big question is: How much of a hit will the arts eventually take? And how will the loss of public cultural events affect a city that — finally and proudly — had changed its cowtown image? If we can’t cheer or mourn together in the same room, do we lose what makes us Denverites?

It’s a complex equation. When the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of this year’s Cherry Creek Arts Festival, the problem wasn’t just that 300,000 attendees missed out on the region’s most popular annual art event, or that countless artworks would never get a chance to connect with viewers in-person.

In taking a year off, the event itself lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue; Cherry Creek North, a landmark commercial district in Denver, lost its biggest marketing gimmick; and 265 painters, sculptors and photographers lost their most profitable gigs of the year.

A women walks along business on ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

A woman walks past business on Third Avenue in Cherry Creek on June 10, 2020, in Denver.

Similarly, when the pandemic required folk-mainstay Swallow Hill Music to cut off human-to-human contact, not only did the 70,000 concertgoers it draws to Denver Botanic Gardens and elsewhere lose their entertainment, but Swallow Hill lost a revenue stream that covers 30% of its budget. The 20,000 private music lessons that feed the rest of its income disappeared, too. Seventy teachers were furloughed.

We don’t think of arts groups as money-making ventures. We think of the symphonies they stir to life, the ballets they dance, the films they screen. We think of memories they trigger and empathy they generate. The art and entertainment we support is as central to our personalities as it is to the civic boosters who use it to sell Denver to outsiders.

But arts nonprofits are small businesses, too, and the pandemic slashed them off at the root.

“Art, by its nature, is about putting artists’ bodies in space with audiences,” said Gary Steuer, who leads the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, a major arts funder in Colorado that launched an emergency COVID-19 relief fund.

Without that human connection, the product that supports banjo players, Shakespearean actors, stagehands and box-office clerks in Denver’s 12,000-person culture workforce disappeared in a matter of weeks. One survey found that ticket sales to cultural events in North America fell 71% during the third week of March alone.

It’s unclear how this work stoppage will impact culture in the long-term. The art world is full of creative people who are used to tight margins, and they are already designing survival plans. The community is on their side: Donations are up and governments and private foundations are helping to close some of the immediate budget gaps with micro-grants totaling tens of millions of dollars. Companies are moving offerings online (with limited success) and few creative types are talking about defeat.

But good attitudes only carry them so far. How does a local theater get back to business when social distancing means it can only fill one-third of its seats, and even that won’t balance the bottom line? Until there’s a coronavirus vaccine, the limitations are staggering.

“We’ve seen data with regards to losses in the billions,” said Tariana Navas-Nieves, director of cultural affairs for Arts & Venues, Denver’s lead arts agency.

She would know: Arts & Venues, which owns Red Rocks Amphitheatre and uses the profits to host more than 1,400 events annually, is out millions in ticket fees due to canceled concerts. Its expectations for revenue in 2020, conservatively forecast at $54 million, have now been revised downward to $8 million.

To understand the enormity of the challenge facing arts nonprofits — and what’s lost if they go away — we need to look at where they were before coronavirus, how they responded and, perhaps most important, where they think they’ll be when summer ends.

A ‘blockbuster’ run, stopped dead in its tracks

For nearly every Denver arts organization, Friday, March 13 delivered the ominous misery the date always conjures. The 2019-2020 artistic season was fast winding to a close, and stages were set for a triumphant finale to a decade of growth.

“We were leveraging our 50th anniversary, which was June 1,” said Malik Robinson, executive director of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. “We were also planning on making eight program hires in our Cleo II company and additional administrative hires toward the end of the year.”

That’s unusual for CPRD, founded by Malik’s mother, Cleo Parker Robinson, who at 72 still takes an active role at her namesake company. The dance nonprofit has relied heavily on grants and tax dollars to stay afloat. Despite decades of international touring and awards for its progressive work about African Americans and the African diaspora, the outfit is by nature lean and nimble.

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance founder and ...
Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance founder and artistic director, Cleo Parker Robinson, looks over a poster from the 2017 Mile High Dance Festival in the hallways of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance June 12, 2020.

This year, however, CRPD’s budget was $2.1 million — an increase of 250% from 2014. Its staff had developed a five-year growth plan around the uptick in money from shows, touring, theater rentals and classes at its Five Points headquarters. They spent months setting up the first-ever Denver visit of the Dance/USA conference and secured a spot at the Massachusetts-based Jacob’s Pillow dance fest — hailed by The New York Times as “the dance center of the nation.”

Over at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA), touring Broadway shows such as “Hamilton,” “Mean Girls” and “The Book of Mormon” — the seat taxes for which support Denver Arts & Venues — were hotly anticipated by subscribers and programmers alike.

“It looked like a blockbuster year all around, possibly our best on record,” said Ginger White Brunetti, executive director of Arts & Venues. “At Red Rocks, we were booked almost every night April through October, and were working toward an international Music Cities convention in the fall. We were actually wondering if we were taking on too much.”

The Colorado Symphony, once known for its cash-strapped ways, had much to celebrate. Attention-getting collaborations with pop stars and live, sold-out movie series (“Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” etc.) were sitting alongside an endowment that has now swelled to nearly $25 million. Negotiations over moving the symphony out of its longtime home at Boettcher Concert Hall downtown found the organization in a position power.

“We’ve had three seasons of surplus. No deficit, no debt,” said Jerry Kern, CEO and board chairman of the 80-member orchestra. “It’s the most stable financial position in our history. And if you’re a wise man, you wouldn’t bet on Boettcher lasting much longer. Up until the moment coronavirus hit, we were talking with the city and county, as well as a developer on a site in RiNo.”

Denver, eager to keep the symphony rooted in downtown’s Denver Performing Arts Complex, dangled $16 million left over from a 2007 bond offering if the symphony stayed put. Taken as a whole, it’s enabled the company to bring in stars like Renée Fleming, Danny Elfman and Yo-Yo Ma, with a versatile orchestra that can tackle The Flaming Lips at Red Rocks one night and Beethoven the next.

“We’ve come a long way in the last nine years,” said Kern, who led the efforts to turn the symphony’s finances around.

The Denver Center for the Performing ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is empty on June 11, 2020 after events have been canceled due to COVID-19.

The day(s) the world changed

On March 13, the arts scene caught a glimpse of the future.

Gov. Jared Polis reported the state’s first coronavirus death, despite fewer than 100 confirmed infections in Colorado. Calling the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 “one of the greatest public health disasters of our lifetime,” he limited public gatherings to no more than 250 people.

Arts programmers were suddenly faced with agonizing choices.

Malik Robinson sat alone in his office at Cleo’s headquarters, a converted brick church at 119 Park Avenue West, feeling overwhelmed by an enormous sense of loss.

“I immediately just began mourning all the work we had set up,” he said. “And I knew I had to talk to the staff.”

Given the gravity of the situation, most acted quickly. On the morning of what was to be opening night, the Arvada Center canceled the last of three repertory plays in its black box theater. The suburban arts hub was also five days out from the start of rehearsals for the mainstage musical “Something Rotten.”

“We decided there’s no point in rehearsing this big, expensive musical we’ll have put half a million dollars into when we don’t know for sure if it was ever going to open,” said Philip Sneed, president of the Arvada Center. “So we made the decision to shut that production down, and to shut down the black box for what we hoped would be three weeks.”

By 2 p.m. Monday, March 16, the entire Arvada Center had closed. The city’s cultural hub — with its two theaters, art gallery, rehearsal spaces and classrooms — “hasn’t been open since, except to a few employees,” Sneed said.

Stages quickly emptied around the metro area. Curious Theatre Company canceled its run of the social satire “Admissions” during the show’s last week of rehearsals. Then it scrubbed the season’s final show, “Roe.” Boulder’s Local Theater Company called off its annual play development event. Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company canceled the regional premiere of the Tony-nominated drama “Oslo.”

Su Teatro’s artistic director, Tony Garcia, had hoped to power through the first weekend of “War of the Flowers,” which opened March 12 in the Art District on Santa Fe. He had no choice but to surrender to wary audiences, even before shelter-in-place orders arrived.

That weekend, Deborah Jordy, executive director of the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), began calling the leaders of Denver arts and culture organizations that had received some of SCFD’s $66 million in sales tax revenues last year. Her team soon began its own aggressive modeling, budgeting anew for the fiscal hit SCFD would likely suffer.

SCFD officials now foresee a 30% drop in sales tax revenue from the seven-county metro area, which could translate to a loss of tens of millions of dollars for the region’s arts nonprofits.

“While a potential loss of $20 million this year is possible under the forecast, we are hopeful this conservative estimate will not prove accurate,” Jordy said. “But like every other organization, we are operating with an understanding that the current landscape is unlike one we have seen before.”

A badly damaged ecosystem

Colorado’s performing arts companies, festivals and museums thrive because of the work of individual artists, who have also been dealt devastating losses.

Littleton’s Scott Hildebrandt was already in Arizona, his booth set up and wares readied for display at the Scottsdale Arts Festival. It was the culmination a two-day, 900-mile road trip, one of a dozen he makes each year to show the sculptures he crafts from vintage televisions and radios.

But hours before the crowds were due to arrive on March 13, organizers canceled the festival due to concerns over the coronavirus. With little choice, he packed up, spent the night in a hotel room that he couldn’t get a refund for, and prepared to drive home.

One by one, the outdoors festivals that served as Hildebrandt’s workspaces peeled away, ending with the biggest show of his year, the Cherry Creek Arts Festival (scheduled for July and canceled in early April). Hildebrandt has now lost the sources that supply 80% of his annual income. He’s made up some of it by shifting sales online, but he’s not sure how strong that will remain going forward.

“The biggest loss is not being able to physically connect with people,” he said. “That’s how I sell art.”

Cuts at the DCPA — with 300 staff members, the region’s largest arts employer — offered the most unsettling peek at what the crisis might look like. Following Polis’ March 13 bombshell, weekend conference calls between CEO Janice Sinden and her executive team were rapid-response and dire.

On March 15, DCPA filed a notice of mass layoffs with the Colorado Department of Labor. By late May, looking at little to no earned revenue for three fiscal quarters, the DCPA canceled its Theatre Company’s entire 2020-21 season. It has now cut at least 55% of its staffing costs with a combination of terminations, layoffs and furloughs, much of it shouldered by Coleman’s Theatre Company.

“It’s created a huge vacuum,” Coleman said, adding that traditional, live theater could take up to 18 months to return. “I can’t help but think of all the actors, designers and directors we would have hired throughout the year — about 1,500 if you include Broadway. And then you look at every cultural entity in the region, and it’s the same. They are down to an absolute bare-bones staff and wondering how long they can stick it out.”

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

The Denver Art Museum — shuttered by the coronavirus shutdown — in downtown Denver, Colorado on Saturday, March 21, 2020.

Reinventing reality

Decisions made in crisis often define a leader’s tenure. But what if that crisis is a lack of information?

“We had to (respond) very rapidly to a rapidly changing situation,” said Jane Williams, DCPA’s vice president of finance. “We’d leave the office thinking we knew one thing and almost daily were inundated with new information, which we’d have to quickly shift to reassess the outlook as we were moving forward to the end of this fiscal year (June 30).”

Choked revenue streams and safety guidelines were one thing. Another was figuring out how to prove these arts nonprofits are more than just a fancy building or canceled event. Do they arrive with doom-and-gloom fundraising appeals? No, most said. Too drastic and depressing. And not the right time, with so many out of work.

“The (Paycheck Protection Program) loan is running out soon and it’s unlikely we will be able to continue (to remain fully employed),” said Chip Walton, producing artistic director of Curious Theatre Company, said earlier this month. “We’ll have to transition to some form of limited or reduced operations later.”

Wonderbound, the region’s premiere contemporary dance company, was hit especially hard since it saves its biggest events — including a fundraising gala — for the spring. The company also received a PPP loan, which meant it was able to live up to contracts with dancers that ran through mid-May. But it’s also had to halt its usual operations, including 60 performances at 40 schools each year in front of 40,000 students.

Instead, leaders asked dancers to work on their own, at home, choreographing new solo works and creating tutorials “for kids and kids at heart,” as president Dawn Fay put it. The lessons, which used copyright-free music found on the web, were distributed to students through 300 schools in Denver, Adams and Jefferson counties. All content was posted for free online — a whopping 123 videos — and the company has managed to keep itself in the public eye and make art.

Without its signature festival, Cherry Arts was also forced to ask itself, “How can we reinvent what we do in a contact-less way?” according to Tara Brickell, executive director.

Repurposing children’s activity supplies meant for the July festival, Brickell oversaw a program that distributed stay-at-home art kits, at one point giving out an average of 500 per week.

Many rushed to stem their losses with government loans, foundation money and private dollars. But even that’s not enough in most cases.

If performances can’t start up again in the fall, the worst-case scenario sees Cleo Parker Robinson Dance cutting a total of $900,000 from its budget in order to make it into 2021. The company has been running online dance classes every day of the week and produced a dozen podcasts before March had even ended. The Cyberdance 2020 initiative, as it was called, quickly found that many of CRPD’s supporters were on board for virtual programming. They also took part in a virtual Dance/USA conference, which came and went this month.

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance founder and ...
Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance founder and artistic director, Cleo Parker Robinson in the lobby area at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance on June 12, 2020.

But even as some nonprofits were able to tap the federal government’s PPP, it was a short-term answer to an ongoing dilemma: Performing art venues remain closed, and therefore strapped for earned income or sustained revenue.

The chaos demands a broad overview. In mid-April, SCFD surveyed all arts and culture organizations eligible for its funding. They found that 121 organizations had two months or less of operating reserves, with an additional 54 having only four months of reserves. Sixty-seven organizations said they’d made temporary staff reductions they feared would become permanent. Only about 100 of the 321 respondents had sought and received help from the federal government in the first round of stimulus.

One thing has become clear to SCFD leader Jordy and other regional arts leaders: Widespread hope for a swift bounce-back is more fantasy than reality.

“There have been a lot of layoffs, and there are a lot more to come,” Jordy said.

On top of broad yet immediate economic challenges, the roiling demands of the George Floyd protests have added to the to-do list for arts and culture institutions. It’s a lot to shoulder amid a fight for survival.

“How do we seek donor dollars (and) budget help in this moment of economic devastation?” DCPA’s Sinden said. She isn’t the only arts leader to express discomfort about aggressive fundraising in the time of coronavirus and civic unrest. “I’m less concerned with competing with the ballet than with an organization that is (helping people deal) with mental health.”

“This is a time when we can’t be tone-deaf about racial inequities,” SCFD’s Jordy added. “We can’t be tone-deaf about food insecurity. We can’t be tone-deaf about immigration issues. And the arts and cultures are vastly important, but we can’t be tone-deaf to our society.”

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance founder and ...
Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance founder and artistic director, Cleo Parker Robinson, left, and her son, executive director, Malik Robinson on stage at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance on June 12, 2020.

Planning for the unknown

Without a novel coronavirus vaccine, there’s no true timeline for reopening, arts leaders say, only hasty reactions to government orders. The uncertainty is shared widely, especially at small and mid-level arts nonprofits, where a spectacular misstep could turn off audiences or gut funding.

“What keeps me up at night is that it’s not an existential crisis now, but if we don’t manage it well, it can become an existential crisis,” said Curious Theatre board chairman Jim Steinberg, formerly of the DCPA.

As for what recovery will look like, “We can run out different scenarios,” said SCFD’s Jordy, “but we still need more information. You’re going to need to have plans A to Z in that recovery package.”

One outcome she’s intrigued by is organizations partnering in new ways.

“It might not be two totally mission-aligned organizations. It could be about geography. It could be about expanding one’s reach,” she said. “That could be part of the recovery, if people are willing to stretch in that direction.”

Fundraising efforts have already united diverse organizations for the cause. With applications open as of June 8, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation gave its COVID Arts and Culture Relief Fund a $1 million start. More is coming from The Denver Foundation, which will also administer the fund and donated $50,000, as well as Arts & Venues ($205,000), Gates Family Foundation ($100,000) and individual donors.

There are other glints of hope: Arvada Center had its first in-person class for adults this month — “no more than 10 including the instructor,” Sneed said. Its gallery exhibit, “Pink Progression,” celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, is set to open to patrons July 3.

Last week, the RiNo Art District’s Crush Walls festival announced a Sept. 14-20 return, owing to its built-in social distancing as 100-plus artists paint 40 murals and other street art.

Using a PPP loan, Swallow Hill was able to bring back all of its teachers. It recently went virtual with paid classes, which are filling up with students. It’s also presenting a new concert, for free, every night at 6 via Facebook Live.

Those concerts could be a springboard, said Swallow Hill CEO, who is undaunted by the halt of business as usual. He envisions a post-pandemic future where live, public concerts resume, but online offerings stay.

Swallow Hill CEO Paul Lhevine June ...
Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Swallow Hill CEO Paul Lhevine on June 11, 2020.

Imagine if Swallow Hill could hold paid shows at its South Denver home, but open up ticket-buying to the entire world through a simultaneous video stream. Similarly, in-house music lessons could return but still be offered globally, rather than just locally. The potential reach — and revenues — are enormous for both the organization and the artists who would get a cut.

“The goal is that our online operations might surpass the money we generate in live offerings,” Lhevine said.

But online only reaches so far. Without in-person conventions or concerts, how can Arts & Venues maintain its properties? Business and academic conferences at the Colorado Convention Center (now set up as an ad hoc coronavirus hospital) and shows at Red Rocks have long propped up the less lucrative, high-cost venues the city owns, such as the McNichols Civic Center Building.

While Arts & Venues defers inessential maintenance to route money toward operations, staffers have devised a four-point plan to herald the return of public arts.

The bullet points — realignment, reopening, reimagining and repositioning — are an attempt to “not let a good crisis go wasted,” White Brunetti said, channeling a political trope. But challenges remain.

“We just calculated what it would take to socially distance the Ellie Caulkins Opera House,” she said. “With 2,200 total seats, you could only fit a house of 400 people. It’s hard for any organization that uses it to make that fit their business model.”

Meanwhile, Colorado State University last week announced a groundbreaking study that would examine “bioaerosol emissions” and how to reduce them at performing arts events. That includes the study of airborne particles and droplets projected by people playing wind and brass instruments, singers, actors and dancers — “and whether steps can be taken to protect both performers and audience members from the risks of co-exposure to COVID19.”

More than three months into the global coronavirus pandemic, SCFD has not reported the permanent closure of any metro-area arts and culture nonprofits. Dozens of galleries and museums continue to reopen, however cautiously, and Denver artists are recommitting to social justice as they create new works infused with activism and hope amid the Black Lives Matter sea-change.

Whether it’s optimism or delusion, 63% of the participants in a recent survey of performing arts organizations in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. said they planned to reopen sometime between August and December, with one-third eyeing a traditional September season start, according to TRG Arts (which cautioned that the data is subject to change). It makes sense when considering 16% of all cultural organizations in the West have no cash reserves at all, Denver-based WESTAF has found.

“No one can advise you on this,” said Wonderbound president Fay. “Nobody has the answers and all we can do is stay agile.”

Yes, jobs have been lost, some permanently. Money that might have gone toward concert tickets is now buying packets of ramen noodles and prescription drugs. But when truly safe, large-scale public events return, the songs, paintings, films and dance that bring meaning to life will still need audiences to connect with them.

“The comments we’re getting from subscribers are so heartfelt. They’re as sad as we are,” said the DCPA’s Coleman. “And I suspect that’s true of organizations across the city. Our job as artists is to survive right now, but we can also reflect when we have a little bit of distance from this moment, and that distance allows us to go deep. … That’s what makes good art. But it’s going to be a rough year for all of us, and we’re going to need all the support we can get.”

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